Urban Conflict – Fighting For Resources In The Slums

Posted on 12 October 2007. Filed under: Development, Economy, Insecurity |

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Armed with an AK47 rifle, a policeman keeps watch over suspects during a crackdown in Mathare, Kenya, 7 June 2007.

NAIROBI, 8 October 2007 (IRIN) – In November 2006, two gangs fought for three days in Mathare, one of Africa’s most overcrowded slums, in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Eight people were reported to have died and at least 9,000 people displaced, after a row over control of a lucrative illicit brewing market in the slum. Government forces failed to restore calm between the ‘Mungiki’ and ‘Taliban’ gangs. “Houses were set on fire and people fled, forced to carry their personal possessions and camp at the side of the main road nearby. Children were separated from their families … It was months before people felt it was safe to return,” says Julius Mwelu of the Mwelu Foundation.

While cities were once seen as places of opportunity and privilege, they are also places of despair, poverty and conflict. As millions of people crowd into slums in the developing world each year, gangs become more powerful as local government surrenders authority, either through impotence, indifference or collusion. In many cases militias and gangs control streets that become no-go areas for police.

Reports of muggings, gun battles, murders, gang fights, drug wars, sexual violence and mob justice have become all too familiar. Indeed, urban insecurity is gaining importance on the international stage not only because of terrorist attacks but because of the daily violence that dominates many people’s lives – further fuelled by the rapid growth of cities.

Rapid urbanisation

According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, “rapid urbanisation is generally coupledwith decreasing levels of public safety, posing serious challenges to the provision of security and justice”.

To highlight the importance of this issue, UN-HABITAT and Earthscan released a major report to mark UN World Habitat Day on 1 October: Enhancing Urban Safety and Security – Global Report On Human Settlements 2007, the first in-depth examination of urban security issues.

According to the report, urban violence and crime are on the rise worldwide: in 1980–2000, recorded crime rates increased by about 30 percent. In developing countries, 60 percent of all urban residents have been victims of crime over the past five years, rising to 70 percent in Latin America and Africa.

Such high rates hinder the development of cities, impede their economic growth, and have disastrous effects on the urban poor overall, especially vulnerable women, children and the elderly. Preventing and reducing crime, violence and victimisation is now accepted as an essential prerequisite for development. “It is as important as good housing, health, food and drinking water, and sustainable livelihoods,” says Margaret Shaw, director of analysis and exchange at the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime.

Underlying causes of urban violence

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Most street families spend their nights in the open – a nightmare for young, vulnerable girls who fall victims to rape and are forced into prostitution. Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 2007.

“We live in an unacceptably violent world,” said Anna Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN-HABITAT, recently, because an “estimated one billion people are living in slums, the vast majority of [whom] are the urban poor. They suffer high levels of unemployment, live in overcrowded conditions often without access to water, sanitation and security of tenure. They suffer from all forms of social exclusions.”

Poverty, when combined with the unequal distribution of state resources and power, weak institutions, unemployment, inequity, territorial segregation, poor urban planning and management of public spaces, can heighten the potential for violence.

The availability of drugs and guns and the presence of organised crime can also be a factor. Hence the theory of “relative deprivation” advanced by many specialists: inequality breeds social tension as those who are less well-off feel dispossessed when comparing themselves with others.

As the density of an area increases, dwellings, job opportunities and private spaces diminish. There is greater pressure on resources: water, electricity, food, and there is no longer any space for safe recreational activities. Investment and new business are driven away and teachers, nurses, doctors and police prefer to work elsewhere. Police response is slow or non-existent. And with an almost total absence of government, there is no education or healthcare. The result is an increase in young people with no schooling, no jobs, and little space for legitimate recreation.

Young men at highest risk

Photo: AFP
Perpetrators of gang violence in the slums of Honduras. According to UNODC, internationally, most crimes are committed by males between 15 and 30. Criminality in slums is thought to be fueled by stress, loss of self-esteem and frustration resulting from poverty and unemployment.

The combination of rapid urbanisation and a “youth bulge” – a high proportion of young people relative to the adult population – can be explosive. Internationally, most crimes are committed by males between 15 and 30, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This particular group is also thought to comprise most of the victims. They are also at greater risk of falling prey to gang recruitment.

Analysts agree that unemployment per se is not the root of violent behaviour. Rather, stress, loss of self-esteem and frustration resulting from poverty and unemployment are believed to fuel criminality.

In Colombia’s comunas and Rio’s favelas the problems associated with urbanisation bolster the ranks of the pandillo gangs of disillusioned young men. “I’m really scared of dying but what can I do?” a teenage drug trafficker and father of one asked recently during a visit to the Fumace favela in Realengo, on the western outskirts of Rio. “We’re not here because we like it. We’re here because we have families … I have a small child and there is no other work.”

The problems associated with the youth bulge are becoming even more urgent given the increasing number of slum dwellers, half of whom are younger than 25 and 40 percent under the age of 19. According to a recent Oxfam report, Urban Poverty and Development in the 21st Century, the young join gangs, “in part to protect themselves and their neighbourhoods but also to engage in criminal activity in the absence of steady sources of employment and in the absence of effective social support mechanisms”.

Impact of urban violence

Physical consequences are not the only fallout for women and other victims; the psychological damage is also far-reaching. Gulfer Cezayirli, a senior urban development specialist at the Asian Development Bank, says violence “inhibits productivity and income-earning capacity, affects the investment climate, destroys infrastructure and disrupts delivery of services”.

Photo: Douglas Engle/AustralFoto
A woman shows a photo of her son, 16, wearing a red and black shirt in the Vigario Geral favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 15 December 2005. Police occupied the slum after eight young people, including her son, were allegedly kidnapped by drug traffickers from a nearby slum. The kidnappings are thought to be the result of a feud between rival drug gangs that has been going on for more that 20 years.

The fear of crime has possibly a greater effect upon urban vulnerability. As crime rates increase, the higher-income population seeks greater security in the form of gated communities. The resulting fragmentation polarises urban society further, increasing the risk of violence.

Many cities have become divided into islands of prosperity and deprivation where violence prevails. As stated by Nairobi-based urban author Rasna Warah, “In an increasingly polarised world, where resources are scarce and where political and religious differences threaten to tear communities apart, cities are becoming the preferred battlefields for both terrorists and criminals.”

Crime and violence also render slums too dangerous for aid and development agencies. Hence, Mark Schneider and Damien Helly of the International Crisis Group, writing about Cité-Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, say that “insecurity – from those urban gangs, from political spoilers and from drug traffickers – had stalled any real chance for major investments in the impoverished communities that lace through the capital. Too many kidnappings, too many assaults and too many drive-by shootings had turned the capital into a no-go zone for all but the most adventurous development agencies.”


As urban populations grow, cities are becoming a focal point for violence-prevention and reduction policies and programmes. However, according to the Oxfam report, “policy-makers usually turn their attention to urban poverty only when tensions spill over into violence and conflict. We do not have to wait for our cities to burn.”

Where they have been implemented, most strategies to curb urban violence have been focused on the criminal justice sector and law enforcement, despite violent crackdowns that seem to exacerbate the problem. Such problems are common in El Salvador, where gang violence accounts for a high percentage of deaths in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International say the increased repression by authorities is creating more violence and leaving many inhabitants exposed to the violence of both the gangs and the state forces.“The government responds with violence and repression, which only fuels the anger. It’s a never-ending problem,” said one San Salvador resident, reported in a UN publication.

Interventions can also be hindered by the police, politicians and judges who collude with gangs. A lack of confidence in the state’s capacity to control or prevent crime and violence can lead to vigilantism. Urban safety is no longer an issue of policing alone; it requires a cross-sector approach that includes conflict resolution. It also calls for more consultations with local communities to decide on the best strategies for prevention and protection against violence.

Civil society, national and local governments, the private sector and the international development community all have a role to play. As the UN-HABITAT report highlights, there is a need for policy responses that place people, poverty reduction and community participation at the centre. Through such responses, urban violence can be addressed effectively “so that urban crime and violence, if not eradicated, can at least be contained in the 21st century”.

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5 Responses to “Urban Conflict – Fighting For Resources In The Slums”

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i love ur web so much i got an a on my project!!!!

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Welcome back and thanks for the compliments. Send us an e-mail to enviropolitics(at)gmail.com specifying which topics you want us to cover for the future. Thanks

Yhank you. This information was crucial for my research. i can’t stop myself from posting comment.

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